Constitution Day: Start the School Year with Civics

Article excerpt

At the start of the last school year, educators across the country, especially those who teach social studies, returned to their schools and found quite a surprise. The celebration and recognition of Constitution Day on September 17th was now required by federal law. The new law, known colloquially as the Byrd Amendment, requires all schools receiving any federal assistance, from kindergarten to higher education, to teach students about the Constitution on Constitution Day. To further complicate the matter, in the first year this law was in effect, Constitution Day fell on a Saturday, and this year it is on a Sunday. The United States Department of Education determined, however, that "when September 17 falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, Constitution Day shall be held during the preceding or following week." (1) With this information, school administrators sought to assign the task of insuring their school was within the law and turned to their teachers of social studies.

That was last year. Now that we know what it is like to put together a one-day event to honor the Constitution, and with the knowledge of how to plan for success, we can look forward to this year's day with excitement. Constitution Day must be seen as an opportunity. This is our moment: social studies educators are being turned to for leadership. For this one day, we are not being pushed aside or asked to take a back seat--we are in the spotlight. We must use this opportunity to its greatest potential. We must take charge.

Where to begin? The concept of a school's civic mission has been growing in recent years, since the publication of the Civic Mission of Schools report in 2003 and with the launching of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. (2) Constitution Day is the perfect opportunity to enlighten students, administrators, faculty and parents that your school has a "Civic Mission." It has a mandate from your community and from the country to educate and prepare young citizens for their role in our democracy.

How do you create a commitment to civic education? Based on the suggestions of best classroom practices from the Civic Mission of Schools report, the National Constitution Center has created a three sphere approach to civic education, with the belief that great civic education can be led by social studies teachers but must be carried out in all classrooms and at all grade levels.

Civic Knowledge

The teaching of civic knowledge is the bedrock of civics education. This is the information covered in government classrooms, American history courses, and most of the content on the AP American Government and Politics exam. The information covered in the civic knowledge sphere includes the following: the Constitution, how a bill becomes a law, state and local governments, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens, to name just a few. On Constitution Day, social studies classrooms can introduce students to the Constitution and use it as the starting point for the rest of the school year.

The civic knowledge sphere should not be limited to the social studies classroom. Every discipline can be encouraged to teach basic civic knowledge: science teachers can work with students to examine the role of the FDA, NASA, or the EPA; math teachers can study fractions by examining how many votes in the electoral college it takes to win the presidency; Language Arts teachers can work with students to compose essays and other writings on political themes; and the physical education department can work with students on examining the role of government in sports or the impact of the Olympic games on international relations.

Civic knowledge is only one key to a complete civic education, but it is one that is already being taught in schools across the country. The key to furthering its success is encouraging students to understand that civic knowledge is not limited to the social studies classroom. …